Saturday, April 20, 2013

Boston, My Beloved

I should be in Chicago right now, but after the events of this week there’s no place I’d rather be than Boston. Even yesterday, when my city was under lockdown and I was glued to the TV watching the search for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, I thought to myself that the last thing I wanted to do was leave. If this ship is going down, I’d rather stay with the ship. But this is Boston, a city that runs 26.2 miles on our day off for fun and then two more miles to donate blood in the wake of a deadly bombing, a city that cancels Friday to hunt down the man who messed with us. This ship ain’t going down.

Kenmore Square, empty during the lockdown
When I hobbled back into work on Wednesday after two days off for the Boston Marathon, everyone asked me about my experience at the finish line and of course told me how glad they were I’d made it out unscathed. But one of my colleagues asked a unique, and fitting, question: Do you feel like more of a Bostonian now than you did before the race? I felt a rush of emotion when I told him yes, absolutely.

Rushes of emotion have been especially common for me lately, in the days before the marathon when I felt both intimidated and excited by how epic this race is, and afterward when I’ve been reflecting on the beautiful series of events leading up to the day’s horrific conclusion.

The strongest reaction I had was anger. But it was anger driven by love of my city, my marathon, and above all my people, including my teammates and our supporters and my wider community of runners and their loved ones. The city of Boston, the marathon, the charity runner program, and my Running for Rare Diseases team are some of the few things I’ve looked at and said, “This is good. This is beautiful.” I was deeply angry that someone would try to destroy so much goodness.

Moment of beauty & triumph at the Boston Marathon finish
I am convinced that the purpose of the attacks on the Boston Marathon were just that: an attempt to destroy goodness and beauty. After the attacks, some of my teammates speculated on whether the bomb would have caused more damage had the terrorists set it off at the start rather than the finish. But the sheer number of people hurt wasn’t the whole point; the point was to destroy the perfect moment of victory and love when a “regular Joe” runner accomplishes what seems impossible – running 26.2 miles – and is reunited with his family members who have supported and cheered him on. After all, the best ways to destroy the spirit of a runner are to take away her legs and to maim and kill her family and friends. The terrorists knew that they could strike fear into the hearts not only of the runners and onlookers immediately impacted by the explosions but by all of us who keep imagining “what might have been.”

Many of us began imagining nightmare scenarios during our vulnerable post-marathon exhaustion. On Monday, after I’d crossed the finish line but before the bombs went off, I remember thinking that I don’t really like myself immediately after I complete a long run. I love how I feel in the final miles of a long run; when everything has been stripped away, I often find courage, clarity of thought, joy, and a spirit turned toward God that I rarely experience in any other times of my life. But once I complete my run, I let my guard down and weakness takes over. Sometimes I just want to collapse on the ground and cry.

I heard an explosion shortly after picking up the bag I’d checked in Hopkinton that had been bussed to the finish line. Fireworks, I assumed. I was only three blocks away but had no idea what was going on. Even after being told to evacuate the Arlington T station and hearing the fear and urgency in the MBTA officials’ voices, I still had no idea. It wasn’t until I’d hobbled all the way to Park Street station that I heard an official say, “There were bombs at the finish line.”

Bombs. At the finish line.

I took out my phone immediately to start trying to locate the others I knew who were at the race and to let my friends and family know I was safe. No calls would go through; no missed calls showed up in my phone log; text messages came and went in batches and had to be resent time after time. And faces flashed into my mind. Faces of people I loved, faces of people I prayed were all right.

2013 Boston Marathon Team
I don’t know how long it was until we were truly assured everyone we knew was unhurt. It’s an indefinite period of time I never want to relive, but did relive in my mind many times that night. Every time I moved while trying to sleep, my sore legs brought my brain to consciousness, and my consciousness was filled with anger – and with love. Every time I thought about bombs being set on charity runners, and specifically on the amazing people who make up my team of runners and supporters, I was sickened and furious. I wanted to respond but I didn’t know how.

You don’t mess with the people I love, I kept thinking throughout the night. You don’t mess with an event as meaningful to me as the Boston Marathon. And you don’t mess with Boston, my beloved city.

But in the midst of all the darkness and anger, I also kept waking up with a warm feeling of being overwhelmed by the love I felt throughout the day. Scenes from the day raced through my mind and stirred something within me, something the terrorists had tried to destroy by bombing the race but which was shining even more clearly because of it.

In heaven at mile 14
I’d just crossed the finish line, exhausted and weak. “Jen!” I called to my teammate, who had finished a few minutes before me. She turned, and we embraced, bursting into tears of joy and relief. “We did it!”

My running team was jubilantly leaving our pre-race breakfast and about to get on the bus that would take us to Hopkinton. “Hey I’m worried about you,” said Phil, our unofficial team captain who knows my running personality better than anyone. “Take it easy until you reach the top of Heartbreak Hill. If you feel like you’re holding yourself back for the first 20 miles, you’ll have a great race.”

I was at the top of the stairs, on the second floor of my house, when one of my roommates got home. “Is she here?” she asked the others and came bounding up the stairs to give me a fierce “I’m so glad you’re not dead” hug.

I texted my friend Sarah from Minnesota while sitting on the Boston Common. “I can’t remember the last time I was that scared,” she wrote. Since my parents don’t have texting and no calls were going through, she called them to let them know I was all right, and she posted on my Facebook for anyone who was checking there.

Mile 14
I was at mile 14, not just running but flying. Erica, the woman with a rare disease I was running for, had flown to Boston just to spend the weekend with me and to watch the marathon. I hugged her and high-fived all my colleagues. Erica told me later I looked like I was in heaven in that moment. And I was.

"I'm dying!" at mile 24
I was at mile 24, trying to finish strong. I looked at the crowd and saw my friend Kristin, one of the few people I trust enough to show how weak I was in that moment. “I’m dying!” I yelled to her. “You’re doing so well!” she shouted back. Suddenly, her husband Chad was running beside me. “You’ve got two miles left,” he said. “You are going to do this.” He said it so confidently that I knew he was right. 

I was at mile 6, trotting along and grinning at the crazy crowds. “You are not almost there!” read one of the spectators’ signs. “No I’m not,” I thought. “And that’s awesome because I never want this marathon to end.”

I was in Hopkinton and my colleague and teammate Kai read a note from one of our company’s senior leaders. “I never ran Boston,” he wrote, “and it’s one of the biggest regrets of my life. I hope you all can enjoy every moment, every step.”

I was shivering in the Boston Common, trying to make my text messages go through. “How are you getting home?” texted my friend Courtney. “I don’t know,” I wrote back. Until I can get these texts through and find out everyone’s okay, I don’t really care, I wanted to add. “I can pick you up and drive you home.”

Scenes of Boston – my beloved city, my home – filled my mind as well. 

Boston greeted me with a torrential rain storm. I’d driven halfway across the country with my friend Ann in a rented SUV, and this is how I was welcomed? (Other things that happened in my first few days here: getting locked out of my apartment with a key that didn’t work, trying to correct a wrong turn by driving around the block and ending up lost for 45 minutes, realizing that unlike dorm rooms apartments do not come equipped with toilet paper or shower curtains, having an IKEA adventure that went horribly wrong.) Boston is a city you have to earn the right to call home.

Boston skyline & Longfellow Bridge
I lived in Somerville when I first moved to the area. My first trek into the city proper was, appropriately, on foot. I walked across the Longfellow Bridge and gazed at the beautiful – and to me at the time, intimidating – skyline of the city and marveled that I lived here now. I didn’t yet call this city home.

Boston Public Library courtyard
Given my love of books, the Boston Public Library was one of the first places I visited after moving here. Though I’d heard it was beautiful no one had told me about the lovely outdoor courtyard; discovering it was like entering a fairy tale.

Raven Used Books in Harvard Square
Feelings of awe and envy mingled in equal parts when I walked through Harvard Square for the first time. Everywhere I turned, there was another bookstore, another beautiful brick building. Why didn’t I try to go here for undergrad?

There was the period in my life when I went to slam poetry every week at the Lizard Lounge, and I wrote articles about Patricia Smith and the National Poetry Slam team. Before I wrote those articles, I’d been afraid I could never be a real writer. 

Emerson College. Park Street Church. Genzyme. These are the places where I grew wings, where I learned how to do things that scare me, where I started to become the person I was always meant to be.

The first time I said, “I’m going home” when I flew from Minnesota back to Boston.

My first run around the Charles River. My first 5K race. My first run after learning some awful Minnesota family news, feeling grateful to have this gruff city to shelter me.

Boston is the city that taught me how to run. Boston is the city that taught me how to be brave even when I’m afraid. Boston is the city that taught me how to fly.

Map of important locations in manhunt
I woke up yesterday morning and discovered that the terrorists weren’t just going after my running community and my marathon. Now they were coming after my work, my home, my friends. The carjacking took place less than a block from my office, the MIT police officer was shot on my typical walking route to and from work, the carjacking victim was released less than a 10-minute walk from my house, the suspects’ home was a street over from my friend’s house and about a mile from mine, the Watertown shoot-out was near one of my favorite running routes and right next to my roommate’s work. All residents of Cambridge, Boston, Watertown, Waltham, Newton, Brookline, and Belmont were asked to stay inside, and all businesses in those areas were asked to close. For the second time in a week, I felt real fear for myself and people I love. 

I don’t like being angry when I don’t have a clear direction to funnel my passion into. But I hate being afraid even more. After an entire day in the house, my fear had faded and I was back to asking the question I’d been asking ever since the marathon: What can I do? 

The answer was the same. I will not be afraid. I will not act on my anger in a destructive way. I will write. I will run. I will keep loving the people in my life and I will keep living my life in my city.

Memorial on Boylston Street
I will postpone my trip to Chicago so that I can walk in my city, heal with my city, cry with my city. I walked along the Charles River today and saw the runners, the flowering trees, the distinctive lines of the Hancock Tower and Prudential Center, the Citgo sign that I’d trained myself to recognize as a beacon of hope at mile 25 of the marathon course. I went to the memorial that has cropped up where Boylston Street is barricaded off and read the “Boston Strong” handwritten notes people have placed there along with flowers and old running shoes.

As I’ve done ever since Monday, I will wear my Boston Marathon jacket as a symbol that beauty, hope, victory, and love cannot be destroyed. 

When I first wore it after the tragedy, I hoped people didn’t think I was trying to get attention. The last thing I wanted was to be treated like I was special because of these horrific events. But then I realized: This is Boston. As with all my accomplishments, running a marathon isn’t going to impress anyone. This city will run me over in the crosswalk, marathon jacket or no marathon jacket. Its citizens will watch me sprint to catch the T and just smirk at me, “Good thing you’ve done all that training.” 

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Friday, April 5, 2013

How the Ivies Have Fallen

From Socrates and Plato, to master and apprentice, to brilliant professor and a small circle of students, the next step in higher education could be machine and human. Harvard and MIT are behind the technology that will make it possible, and Stanford is an early adopter.

An article in today’s New York Times described an artificial intelligence computer program, developed by the non-profit EdX which was founded by Harvard and MIT, that will grade college students’ essays, give them a grade immediately, and allow them to rewrite their essays so that they can be granted a better score. The benefits? Professors are freed up to do other things and students “learn much better with instant feedback,” according to EdX president Dr. Anant Agarwal.

Daphne Koller, founder of an organization that makes a similar system, echoes the sentiment: “It allows students to get immediate feedback on their work, so that learning turns into a game, with students naturally gravitating toward resubmitting the work until they get it right.”

Until they get it right...according to the computer. The problem, of course, is that good writing can never be reduced to a formula. It should be heart-wrenching, eye-opening, condemning, redeeming, transforming. Electrical engineers like Agarwal and computer scientists like Koller – and worse yet, their mechanical spawn – ought not to be the ones teaching our future scholars how to write essays, think critically and creatively, and participate in public discourse.

I prefer to entrust writing instruction to people like Les Perelman, retired director of writing and a current researcher at MIT (thankfully, the critics of this system are also coming from well-respected universities), who founded a group called Professionals Against Machine Scoring of Student Essays in High-Stakes Assessment. The group’s petition against the use of such automated essay grading systems convincingly expresses some of the problems:

Computers cannot “read.” They cannot measure the essentials of effective written communication: accuracy, reasoning, adequacy of evidence, good sense, ethical stance, convincing argument, meaningful organization, clarity, and veracity, among others. Independent and industry studies show that by its nature computerized essay rating is
  • trivial, rating essays only on surface features such as word size, topic vocabulary, and essay length 

  • reductive, handling extended prose written only at a grade-school level 

  • inaccurate, missing much error in student writing and finding much error where it does not exist 

  • undiagnostic, correlating hardly at all with subsequent writing performance 

  • unfair, discriminating against minority groups and second-language writers 

  • secretive, with testing companies blocking independent research into their products

While I wholeheartedly agree with this criticism of automated grading systems and believe Perelman makes some crucial arguments, I think he misses a key point. Not only can machines not read or be convinced intellectually; they also cannot feel. Essays are meant to get into the heads and the hearts of their readers. The beauty and the power of written discourse is that it is not black and white, right or wrong. (This is not, of course, to say that there is no wrong way to write an essay. There is. But there are also an infinite number of ways to write a “correct,” or rather an effective, essay.)

These programs are meant to be programmed to grade essays similarly to how the professor would grade them. How it works is the professor grades 100 essays personally and puts them into the computer, and the system “learns” to grade according to the professor’s style. It’s bad enough when students learn to write in a particular style in order to please a professor; it will be even worse when students learn to write in order to please a mechanized, programmed version of that professor. No matter how stuck in his ways the professor may be, he is still human – and therefore, a brilliant and creative essay still has the power to make him set aside his coffee mug, pull off his spectacles, and say, “Hot damn! I never thought of it that way.”

The mechanized version of the professor will look at word choice, sentence construction, and essay structure and determine that there was nothing special about this essay. There is no room for surprise, for illumination, for inspiration. 

There is no room for genius.

To be sure, genius is a romantic notion. Probably 90% of college students at one point believe themselves to be geniuses and only .009% actually are. But that’s not the point. The point is that education – particularly higher education – should be encouraging moments of genius, flashes of creativity, and true discourse with fellow scholars. 

The danger with automatic grading systems is not just that they are unfair to individual students and can negatively impact their academic and career futures. The bigger danger is on a societal level. Instead of educating a generation of independent thinkers, we are training students to approach writing, thinking, and speaking as they would approach a tactical problem with a clear solution: Follow these defined steps, check the correct boxes, and you will be given a gold star. 

In a world where party lines, buzzwords, and sound bites are failing to provide solutions, we do not need more check-the-box citizens. We need people who are capable of thinking about issues from multiple angles, feeling deeply the cultural and narrative undercurrents of these issues, and articulating the nuance of their ideas and observations. We need people who know what it means to participate and persuade. We need people who write for people, not for machines.